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Historic Roads in the National Park System






Early Roads

The Development of Park Roads

Teamwork/Cooperative Efforts

Evolution of Parkways

World War II and Beyond

Understanding and Managing Historic Park Roads


Historic Roads in the National Park System
National Park Service Arrowhead




Between 1913 and 1915, T. Warren Allen spent a large amount of time in Yosemite, Glacier, Sequoia, and Mount Rainier working on surveys and preparing plans for roads in those parks. In addressing the 1915 National Park Conference, Allen stated his philosophy of park roads. He believed that an abundant number of roads should be constructed in and around national parks; that the entrances needed to be accessible during the early spring and late fall for long visitor seasons; and that parks would not be attaining the highest and best use for which they were set aside unless they were accessible to all people. In his view, after the roads were constructed to the park entrances, they were then to continue on to the primary points of interest in the parks. In general, his ideas paralleled those adopted by Stephen Mather.

Allen stated that the construction of park roads was often similar to the construction of forest roads. Parks and forests were huge tracts of land that in his view warranted development for two reasons: these land areas often contained physical obstacles to connecting with larger road networks; and the construction of the roads provided access to the pleasuring grounds of national parks. He firmly believed that "There are no places where so great relaxation of overtired bodies and brains may be obtained as in the woods, and it should be our endeavor to make them readily accessible to all."

Allen's philosophy of making the parks accessible to everyone was supported by the first director of the National Park Service. Stephen T. Mather believed that the parks belonged to everyone. He firmly believed in bringing more and more of the American citizenry to the national parks to improve the nation. When someone commented on the increased litter the new crowds had started to bring, he noted: "We can pick up the cans, it's a cheap way to make better citizens." [53] Also, Mather envisioned bringing people to some new areas of national parks where no roads had existed previously. [54]

Allen's philosophy extended beyond merely providing good access, and he wanted to build roads that harmonized with natural features, that were inconspicuous, and that showed the natural beauty of an area to best advantage. He stated that although initial survey and layout costs may be slightly more than on a normal road, the actual road construction costs were probably equivalent.

drive-through tree in Yosemite NP
Fig. 2. Artificial attractions such as this drive-through tree, known as the Grizzly Giant or the Wawona Tunnel tree at Yosemite National Park, destroyed resources but helped people gain an understanding of the scale of some of nature's wonders. Thousands of visitors drove through this tree until it toppled in the 1960s. (National Archives, Record Group 79)


T. Warren Allen explained to his audience at the proceedings of the 1915 National Park Conference how he laid out and constructed roads. First, he looked at a park area from the outside in, and generally plotted where through-traffic would go if no natural obstacles (like the Sierra Nevada) were in the way. Then he picked areas suitable for development such as natural features warranting inclusion in a park auto tour, and potential campground and hotel sites. With this information he laid out the primary road on a topographic map and made certain that the road had only very light grades. Then he field-checked the work and walked the route, because sometimes roads laid out on a map might not fit the ground. He continued:

... it may be that the paper location should be varied to permit a view of a beautiful waterfall, to get an attractive water, sky, or landscape effect; it may be found that these effects may be introduced when absent, and the road location should be made with such objects in view.... The proposed roadway should then be carefully studied from selected points, both upon the roadway site and at a distance from it, in order to determine if there may not be made changes which shall add to the attractiveness of the views which may be obtained by travelers or to insure that the roadway may have an harmonious setting when viewed from the outside. It will be necessary, in order to make sure of not missing attractive views which might be brought out by a little change, to occasionally climb a tree along the route and study the possibilities from such vantage point. It may be advisable for some reasons to locate the road through an open or bare spot. Such places should not be avoided on account of unattractiveness until a study has been made to determine whether the unattractiveness may not be eliminated by a judicious planting of trees and shrubs or possibly by the introduction of a small lake or pond. No pains should be spared."

Allen considered using natural features to best advantage, stressing aesthetics, and sometimes even improving on nature were the elements appropriate for park roads.

Then, Allen explained, the road construction was similar to the construction of a typical country highway: placing centerline stakes at each 100-foot station and establishing cross-sections. After he completed the initial layout, he required a close inspection to see how the road actually fit the ground. Wherever culverts were scheduled for construction or cuts-and-fills of any significance, Allen wanted strong consideration given to the scenic and landscape effects that the construction produced. He also emphasized that the plans and specifications should include the same level of detail whether they were to be constructed by contract or by the government so that the final results would be correct. He also said that the design of the road should be chosen so that it could be upgraded to a higher level in an economical fashion if that was ever requested. [56] This last comment coincided with the standard approach that the Office of Public Roads had taken for many years.

T. Warren Allen was a man with a specific vision. He concluded his remarks at the conference by stating "I, as a road builder, have dreamed of road development in the various parks, and have dreamed of seeing such roads, lined and banked with the flowers which grow wild in the meadows of the parks and upon the mountain sides, winding unassumingly along the brook, beneath the waterfall, and skirting timidly the majestic mountain." [57] Allen's views coincided with views of other roadbuilders of the time. S.F. Ralston, the supervisor of Glacier National Park in 1915, also believed that roads in national parks should be different than other roads. They needed to display the natural scenic beauty of the national parks and encourage greater visitation, to enrich the coffers of the country. [58]

The supervisor of Yosemite National Park, Gabriel Sovulewski, echoed Allen's sentiments at the same meeting. Sovulewski had come to the national parks by way of the army. He had been stationed at Sequoia and Yosemite with the army, and he resigned from that and joined the ranger ranks. He had extensive experience in trail construction at Yosemite, and he noted to the same audience at the 1915 National Park Conference that much of what he dealt with in trails was applicable to roads. In his words, "Diversion from a straight path to points of interest, regardless of expense, is important and necessary." [59] In his view it was mandatory to take roads and trails through different types of landscapes and to expose the traveler to a variety of points of interest.

Another expert, David A. Sherfey, discussed log bridges. For log highway bridges of the time, Sherfey designed one capable of carrying a 10-ton roller in addition to supporting its own weight. With beams spaced three feet on center, yellow pine logs safely could span 24 feet. Mr. Sherfey, however, favored reinforced concrete or stone bridges instead, such as ones he saw at Yellowstone. Also, Sherfey and others tended to reject truss bridges as being inharmonious with the landscape; also many likened looking at the scenery through the chords of a truss as equivalent to looking through the bars of a prison. [60] What Allen, Sovulewski, and Sherfey were doing, then, was exhibiting the natural landscape and its features to best advantage and when necessary even enhancing nature by the addition of other features if the scenery was too dull.

Other technical practices in road building were common at the time, and one roads expert considered three elements essential to a good road. These were grades, drainage, and road material. Also, Mr. S.F. Ralston, the supervisor of Glacier National Park, discussed how he favored roads constructed on higher ground. Most often, he reasoned, these routes were more scenic, and they often avoided land that was of greater value to commerce and agriculture. His ideas of park road construction thus considered aesthetics and economics.

Ralston discussed studying soil conditions prior to construction, and paying particular attention to the road crown. According to his experience if the drainage were perfect, then the crown needed slightly less attention. Ralston also noted that:

The roads to be built in the national parks should differ from the ordinary road, in that their purpose is to better display the natural scenic beauty of our national playgrounds and thereby encourage our own people to visit these spots of scenic interest and save to our country the wealth now annually contributed to Europe through the medium of the American tourist.

For dirt roads, Ralston recommended using a plow first over the area, and then coming across with a blade grader. With the grader, the operator moved the earth toward the center of the road and made the crown. The ratio he used was from 1/2 to 5/8 inch of crown for each foot of road width. Also, Ralston noted that the culverts were constructed before the grading started, and the drainage ditches were constructed as the grading progressed.

The early influence of the Office of Public Roads was strong in national parks. When the National Park Service was created in 1916, the Office of Public Roads maintained 160 miles of roads, had constructed 170 miles, and had surveyed and planned for 477 additional miles of park roads. [61] Some of the design ideas put forth by OPR officials paralleled the thinking expressed in the Department of the Interior.


On August 1, 1915, Yellowstone National Park was opened to automobiles. Newspaper articles and those in motoring magazines provided glowing reports on experiencing the park by automobile. One column discussed how much the "motoring fraternity" appreciated being able to take its machines into the park. [62] Another article described the experience of driving through the park as "pleasant beyond description." The piece continued in its accolades, saying that the Montana Automobile and Good Roads Association enthusiastically pronounced Yellowstone "the happy touring ground for the motorist of America." [63] The same article stated that the park motor tour road was far superior to most of the roads found in the west.

Stages still served Yellowstone in 1915, but the automobile quickly became the vehicle of choice for most park visitors. Touring in the national parks provided new and exciting experiences for early motorists. The automobile club magazines gave detailed descriptions of drives through the parks, and they often included information on regulations as well as suggested itineraries. The layout of the road and the spectacular scenery gave motorists a new view of the natural wonders of their world. In Yellowstone the drive to the summit of Mount Washburn proved so breathtaking that one writer for a motoring magazine described its wonders:

The grade to Mount Washburn is not too steep for the average motor, and there is an exclamation point at every turn. Here the road hugs the cliff above a sheer drop of a thousand feet. There it suddenly swerves around a sharp turn, leaving the motor suspended between sky and earth with nothing but space before. When the top is reached, past banks of snow, a view one hundred miles in every direction is obtained, where Lake Yellowstone's mirror, the gash of the grand canyon through the smooth swells of pines, and the occasional filmy blur of a geyser mark the way traveled."

The article also stated that the Secretary of the Interior Lane and Assistant Secretary Mather had "good reason to feel satisfied with the motor-car introduction in Yellowstone." [65] According to some, motoring was the best way to see the park.


Although there had been a move afoot for some years to create an agency to oversee the national parks, it did not happen until 1916. Instrumental in the development of this new agency was the American Society of Landscape Architects, which urged the development of comprehensive plans for national parks and the construction of facilities such as roads, trails, and buildings only as needed and only then without harming the landscape. As early as 1908 Dr. J. Horace McFarland of the American Civic Association — another professional organization instrumental in shaping the national parks — addressed a conference of governors called together by President Theodore Roosevelt to study the issue of conserving the nation's natural resources. McFarland told them:

The scenic value of all the national domain yet remaining should be jealously guarded as a distinctly important natural resource, and not as a mere incidental increment. In giving access for wise economic purposes to forest and range, to valley and stream, the Federal Government should not for a moment overlook the safeguarding to the people of all the natural beauty now existing. That this may be done without preventing legitimate use of all the other natural resources is certain.

In 1915 Stephen T. Mather was an assistant to the secretary of the interior. Mather had in his employ a man named Mark Daniels. Daniels had come to the department when he was hired as general superintendent and landscape engineer to start working in Yosemite at the time that the army was moving out. In an address at the 1915 National Park Conference Daniels bemoaned the fact that the national parks "like all other things which involve idealism or estheticism" were under a constant challenge for justifying their existence. Yet he saw the parks as having two worthwhile justifications: aesthetic and economic.

Daniels stated in 1915 that the parks were not developed, and the work had just begun. He asserted that there were roads, bridges, trails, and hotels to be built. [67] He stressed that in 1915 between 400 hundred and 600 million dollars in coin was being spent by Americans overseas, and that so large an amount of cash leaving the country was affecting the gold reserve. If Americans were willing to purchase scenery, Daniels reasoned, they needed better opportunity to do so in their own country. He cited Switzerland as an example of a place where Americans spent money. He noted that some of the scenery in the Sierra surpassed that of Switzerland, but that Americans could stay more cheaply in the Swiss alps than they could in California because of the large numbers of good, reasonably priced accommodations and the ease of access.

But Daniels and others within the department knew very well that tourists would not go to the national parks unless they knew that they first existed. Then he knew that visitors would only show up if they had adequate transportation facilities and good accommodations. Daniels and his staff started considering offering a variety of accommodations in the national parks. And the staff began looking at transportation facilities and access to the national parks. The secretary of the interior began politicking to get the word about the parks out to the public through the newspapers and organizations. Some organizations took it upon themselves to promote national parks. The General Federation of Women's Clubs, for example, took its own initiative and organized members across the United States to form a "campaign for natural scenery," which included division heads for natural scenery and national parks, and for the establishment of good roads. The clubs included nearly 2 million women in the United States and through them the membership hoped to "arouse public opinion to the value, both ethical and economical, of the natural scenery of our national parks." [68]

Daniels foresaw the growth of tourism in the parks as a result of these efforts. He estimated that 15,000 tourists would visit Yellowstone in 1915, and enormous numbers like that demanded "some sort of civic plan in order to properly take care of the people who visit it." [69] The concept of master plans for national parks was taking shape. In 1915 the secretary had plans underway for Yosemite, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, and Glacier. These studies looked at the parks internally, but they also considered the larger geographical context:

If a plan for the physical development of any area, as well as a national park, is to be in any way successful or practical or efficient, it has got to be functional. In other words, it must be so drawn that it suits the various conditions — not only the topographical features, but all the physical conditions. Therefore, before we could plan the villages it was first necessary to make a very careful and thorough study of the parks and determine from which direction the majority of the travel would come, at what angles the tourist roads came into the park, whether any of them could be used, and from what central point the larger portion of the park could be seen and visited with the least amount of travel. [70]

Also, Daniels stated that the department had put considerable thought into selecting the type of architecture for the greatest amount of "picturesqueness." Daniels' vision was great, and he frankly recognized the lack of financial support for his plans from Congress. But, he reasoned, even though the money was lacking, the department was trying hard to increase visitation and thereby demand that Congress come forth with the appropriations because the public would be clamoring for dollars to the parks. [71]

In 1916 the secretary of the interior assigned the administrative supervision of the national parks to Stephen T. Mather, with the hope that Mather could promote the parks as the primary destinations for American tourist travel for the duration of World War I and beyond. Mather began his educational campaign by employing the talents of Robert Sterling Yard and producing the first of many National Parks Portfolios, the publication of which was funded largely by 17 western railroads who contributed $43,000 to print the document. The state of the parks at that time was such that Yellowstone and Yosemite were the only parks that had a few miles of highway constructed through them. Mather, however, had Robert Marshall create maps of the two parks showing roads and distances, hotels, camps, and supply stations.

One major change was occurring by the time the National Park Service was created in 1916. Automobile use in national parks was increasing by leaps and bounds, and as a result revenues for the parks continued to grow. Mather wrote:

Whatever may be done in this connection, the fact remains that American motorists are intensely interested in the national parks, are visiting them in ever increasing numbers, and are contributing by way of automobile fees large sums of money toward park improvement and administration. They have the right, then, to expect that the Federal Government will pursue a broad policy in the extension of road systems in the several parks, and that they shall enjoy all privileges not inconsistent with good administration of the parks' management and protection. Taking everything into consideration, no policy of national park management has yielded more thoroughly gratifying results than that which guided the admission of motor-driven vehicles to the use of the roads of all of the parks. [72]

In response to increased use of automobiles in national parks, Mather reduced most of the park entrance fees. Yellowstone's entrance fee, for instance, dropped from $10.00 to $7.50, while Mount Rainier's plummeted from $6.00 to $2.50. [73]

Mather was also under orders to adjust other aspects of development based on the amount of traffic. Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane stated to him that he wanted a wide variety of accommodations in national parks "wherever the volume of traffic warrants the establishment of these classes of accommodations." [74]

In another report issued in the late fall of 1916, Mather noted the huge increase in motor vehicles in Yosemite National Park, and he remarked that the removal of restrictions on automobiles was one of the most important factors influencing park development. The numbers of automobiles in Yosemite increased from 674 in 1914 to 3,938 in 1916. Also he noted that motorists were spending longer periods of time in the valley. Despite that huge increase, however, the Yosemite roads of the period were far inferior to those of Yellowstone. [75]

According to Horace Albright, Stephen Mather believed that each park should have one good highway so that people could get into the national parks. He believed that the remainder of the park area should be experienced by foot or on horseback. [76] Mather's commitment to automobile access in national parks was so strong that he even supplied some of his own money to do so as shown in the instance of the Tioga Road acquisition.


Shortly after the new agency was created, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane issued the first official statement of policy to govern the management of the parks. Among the significant topics included in the four-page memorandum written by Horace Albright were a number of items that characterized how the secretary and his department perceived national parks at the time, and in what ways he planned to deal with them. The memorandum described the development of the parks as the construction of "the national playground system." It also contained the oft-quoted paragraph on park development:

In the construction of roads, trails, buildings and other improvements, particular attention must be devoted always to the harmonizing of these improvements with the landscape. This is a most important item in our program of development and requires the employment of trained engineers who either possess a knowledge of landscape architecture or have a proper appreciation of the esthetic value of park lands. All improvements will be carried out in accordance with a preconceived plan developed with special reference to the preservation of the landscape, and comprehensive plans for future development of the national parks on an adequate scale will be prepared as funds are available for this purpose."

In that statement the secretary of the interior showed his commitment to the scenic and aesthetic qualities of park landscapes, but he also looked toward regional planning efforts to ensure their future. The same policy statement also affirmed accessibility to the national park "by any means practicable" in ways that best satisfied the individual tourist including permitting automobile and motorcycle access in all national parks.

road up Mount Washburn, Yellowstone NP
Fig. 3. The United States Army, under the supervision of Capt. Hiram Chittenden, constructed this road to the top of Mount Washburn in Yellowstone National Park. A motoring magazine from 1915 described the grade to the summit as being "not too steep for the average motor, and there is an exclamation point at every turn. Here the road hugs the cliff above a sheer drop of a thousand feet. There it suddenly swerves around a sharp turn, leaving the motor suspended between sky and earth." (National Archives, Record Group 79)


Opening up the parks to automobiles changed both the nature of the park experience and the national parks themselves. Some of the pressure for change came from the motoring public, which became enamored with the prospect of the freedom of the open road and clamored for access to the natural wonders of America. The pressure for road development to support auto travel became too great for the few voices who held out for no development in national parks. The parks, which were often perceived primarily as scenic and aesthetic resources, became destinations for the adventuresome and for those seeking spiritual replenishment from nature. The preservation of scenery, however, remained a key issue.

On the more practical side, decisions made within the Department of the Interior also encouraged automobile use in national parks to increase visitation, enlist further support for the national park idea, and escalate appropriations for running the parks. The "See America First" campaign encouraged Americans to spend their money at home. This accomplished two goals: the money that stayed in the United States boosted the economy, and Americans became acquainted with the natural wonders of their own land. The national parks were advertised as "pleasuring grounds" that were significant for their interpretive and meditative value. The subsequent push for park road construction meant that areas that were once inaccessible other than by foot or horseback became readily accessible by automobile.

The way in which people arrived at the parks began to change, too. In 1916, for instance, 14,527 people came to Yosemite by automobile, and a slightly smaller number arrived at the park by rail. [78] This foreshadowed the evolution from the iron horse to the horseless carriage as the preferred method of getting to and around national parks.

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